Elizabeth is Missing, Emma Healey

Elizabeth is Missing, Emma HealeyElizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

First Published: 2014

Pages: 282
Form: Novel

Rating:5/55/55/55/55/5

Maud is forgetful. She makes a cup of tea and doesn’t remember to drink it. She goes to the shops and forgets why she went. Sometimes her home is unrecognizable – or her daughter Helen is a total stranger.

But there’s one thing Maud is sure of: her friend Elizabeth is missing. The note in her pocket tells her so. And no matter who tells her to stop going on about it, to leave it alone, to shut up, Maud will get to the bottom of it.

Because somewhere in Maud’s damaged mind lies the answer to an unsolved seventy-year-old mystery. One that everyone has forgotten about.

Everyone, except Maud . . .

Elizabeth is Missing is part mystery, part historical fiction and part family drama. But really what it’s about is Maud; an elderly woman slowly losing her memory to dementia. And the real strength of the book is not in the mysteries (which aren’t that hard to solve) but in the way Maud narrates the story. First person present tense – which I normally loathe –  works absolutely beautifully here for a woman not giving an account of something that has happened, but permanently stuck living in the moment (either in the present or in her 1940s childhood). The repetition, the contradictions,confusion, and denials of something she has already said all make her very sadly realistic as she progresses from ‘forgetful’ to in need of permanent care.

But, throughout the dementia; the blanks in her memory, the confusion over words, the occasional inability to recognise her own daughter, Maud maintains a strong and distinct personality of her own and is never ‘just’ a forgetful old lady. She’s not the sharpest tool in the box (even before the dementia) but she is likeable, funny, strong-willed, and tenacious. So once she’s decided that her friend, Elizabeth, is missing she does not let go of it as her carers and her daughter all tell her to, but determines to find her for herself. And, as she slowly loses grip on the present, trying to find Elizabeth brings back memories of her older sister, Sukey, who disappeared in 1946.

The mysteries, as I said, are perhaps not all that hard for the reader to solve – though Healey does a good job of making most of the men in the 1946 flashbacks unlikable and suspicious. But it’s in watching Maud slowly and hesitantly piece it all together that the enjoyment is, rather than in trying to race her to the denouement. The clarity of her 1946 memories contrasts sadly with the fogginess and uncertainty of her every day life; the way people dismiss her, tease her, and get irritated with her repetitive refrains of ‘Elizabeth is missing’  and fail to understand when something she is saying is important.

It reminds me, as I’m sure it does many who have read the book, of several of my own elderly relatives. Most notably my great aunt, who lived on her own into her 90s before walking out one winter morning in her nightie, posting her keys through the door of her cottage and walking barefoot down a country lane to go meet her mother for the holiday she believed they were going on. She ended up in a secure nursing home, calling the police up at least once a day to inform them she had been kidnapped and was being held against her will. Until she convinced herself that she must be in witness protection for seeing some sort of crime, and began to gleefully inform visitors of that fact, though she had ‘no idea’ what it was she must have seen. Even at the time, this was a mix of sad and kind of hilarious, but seeing that sort of memory loss through the eyes of the person experiencing it, what they might be thinking and feeling, and the ‘sad’ part really hits home. And though the book doesn’t flinch from the humour to be found in the situation, it is never, really, at the expense of Maud herself.

The family dynamics, particularly Maud’s strained relationship with her daughter Helen are also a mixture of amusingly and depressingly realistic. The care and affection Helen has for her mother mixed with a very real frustration when she keeps doing and saying the same things over, and gets fixated on seemingly meaningless details. All of which, in Maud’s mind paints the one child who is actually there and looking after her as a bit of an irritating nag, constantly telling her off for things she doesn’t even recall doing. It felt very real. And the moments when Maud is self aware, when she realises what she’s putting her daughter through, or that she can’t recognise her, are heartbreaking.

Although it upsets Helen that her mother never really talks about her father (fixated instead with Elizabeth and Sukey) I also found it really really  refreshing to see a novel about an woman looking back on her life that doesn’t revolve around a man. Yes, men do play a part in the story,particularly the flashbacks, but Maud eventually growing up, meeting her husband, getting married and having children is actually one of the least interesting things about her life – the defining moment that she looks back to is long before she ever met him. And that’s…it took me a little while to realise what small thing it was that was making me find the story so refreshing, but that’s it and it’s kind of great. Women writing women in realistic ways. Yay!

So five stars. If you’re reading purely for the mystery/crime element you might be a bit disappointed at how ‘easy’ it is to solve (though I maintain that Elizabeth’s disappearance is only meant to be a mystery to Maud, rather than the reader). But as a little glimpse into dementia, memory, family relationships, and the way the elderly are treated I thought it was great. It’s frank and unflinching but also light and funny. Far from being a depressing slog it’s actually a very quick and easy read and never becomes bogged down in the sadness of the subject matter. It’s there, it’s an integral part of the story, but it always remains at a realistic level and never brings out the tiny violin.

And Maud is, ironically, a really memorable character that will stick with me now for a long time.

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